More class warfare to come in presidential campaign
David Axelrod, President Obama's chief strategist, put it this way to reporters the other day: "This is a candidate (Obama) who has a mission ... and that is to rebuild an economy in which the middle class is thriving, in which people can get ahead, in which everybody from Main Street to Wall Street plays by the same rules and gets a fair shake."
GOP convention delegates to the general campaign against Obama.
Whether class warfare is the rich taking advantage of the poor, as the Democrats paint the issue, or the poor enviously blaming the hard-working rich, as the Republican like to define it, the stage is set for another rerun of the debate that has fueled both parties at least since the days of FDR's New Deal.
Well before then, the progressive notions of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt and his trust-busting campaign against "malefactors of great wealth" cast the rich as persecutors of the working man. Indeed, TR also preached that the greedy rich industrialists imperiled the very existence of the country in which they practiced their selfish creed.
Decades later, however, the Democrats laid claim with a vengeance to the class warfare argument. In the midst of the Great Depression, as Wall Street fat cats took one-way leaps out the windows of Manhattan skycrapers and the jobless formed breadlines in the streets below, warfare between the classes became a staple of American politics.
One of the great boasts of Democrats under the New Deal was that Roosevelt's avalanche of new federal work programs had been a major factor in the creation and sustaining of a broad middle class in American society. Subsequent versions from Harry Truman's Fair Deal through Lyndon Johnson's Great Society all aimed at strengthening the middle class.
Spurred by the aggressiveness of LBJ's Great Society, however, the Republican Party succeeded in the 1970s and 1980s in standing the class-warfare theme on its head. Its polemicists argued effectively that that it was the poor, rescued by liberal Democratic programs and policies, who were unfairly casting the rich as the villain in the piece.
Ever since then -- up to today's Occupy Wall Street demonstrations deploring income inequality in America in their battle cry of "We're the 99 percent, they're the 1 percent" -- class warfare has been at the core of much of this country's politics.
In the Reagan and Bush years, Republican politicians successfully peddled the notion that most Americans wanted nothing more than to join the rich higher up the economic ladder. They cited extensive stock-market investment by the non-rich, particularly among blue-collar workers. Americans, they insisted, had become less envious of the rich as they saw a chance of being part of them someday.
But with the subsequent market collapse that clobbered middle-class investors, the old notion of class warfare -- the rich taking advantage of the poor -- has been revived. Exhibit A continues to be the GOP defense of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which Obama hammers relentlessly at every turn.
Obama's strategists, meanwhile, have seized the opportunity to make Mitt Romney the poster child of the Republican war on the middle class. With his repeated inadvertent references to his own wealth, the hapless Romney has proved to be an ideal foil for the Democratic brand of class warfare. And as long as middle-class Americans are hurting, the fact that he is so conspicuously not one of them makes him an easy political target.
If Mitt had been the son of a blue-collar worker and not of the son of an auto-making tycoon, his huge success in business would be serving him better right now. Instead, he is "cursed" by being unable to say, as Obama boasts, "I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth." And so the class warfare will go on.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)